Gardens of Pleasure: An Interview with Designer Yaz Bukey

On a quick trip to Los Angeles, we caught up with Paris-based designer Yaz Bukey. Her eponymous label is a trompe l’oeil pop art explosion of plexiglass that combines the aesthetics of advertising and everyday objects, like cigarette boxes and lipstick. Bukey is also an Ottoman princess and her ancestors were once the rulers of Egypt. In fact, one of those ancestors, Mehmet Ali Pasha, King of Egypt, gave the Concorde Obelisk to Napoleon. Despite her royal blood, Bukey is more modern than ever. Her collections are inspired by everything from ancient mythology to Boy George. In fact, Boy George is a customer of hers – so is Björk. Lately, Bukey has been eschewing the traditional runway presentation and showing her collections in the form of a performance that is half burlesque and half vaudeville shtick, with a splash of erotic revue. One regular performer is retired gay male pornstar François Sagat. We got a chance to catch up with Bukey in the Hollywood Hills to talk about her work, life and inspiration behind her current collection – as well as her wildly ambitious plans for the future of her label, which includes an all encompassing universe splashed with her vision. 

DOUGLAS NEILL: How do you like being in Los Angeles? Is the sunshine inspiring?

YAZ BUKEY: It’s true that we need sun. For me, I love the fact that you can be isolated and at the same time in a big city. This is the thing that I love here. That’s why I would like to move here. My dream would be to have my house with my garden. I love plants. And behind, I have my atelier, and I can work from there.

NEILL: You like having a space for peace?

BUKEY: Yes. I need that, more and more. Before, I was always thinking, “I have to stay in big cities, like Paris, London, or New York.” I think that we really need to be resourced by nature. Here, you have everything – the sea, the gardens, the desert. Everything is here.

NEILL: Your aesthetic is very unique and instantly recognizable. How would you describe it in a word or phrase?  

BUCKEY: It’s all about trompe l’oeil. Through this material – Plexiglas – I arrive to have pieces that you don’t know if it is a print, or if it is an object. Same for the home decor that I am starting to make more and more. You can have different pieces that you put on your wall. I like that a clutch can become a box that you have in your house. It’s accessory for yourself and accessory for your home.

NEILL: It transfers well from situation to situation.  

BUKEY: I like the fact that, when you wear something, people in the street say, “This reminds me of this movie or that pattern.” It’s storytelling. You don’t need to speak. Just having a piece can pop up images in your eye.

NEILL: What was it like meeting Björk and selling your first collection to her?

BUKEY: That was the first big move that happened when I launched my brand. I was sold in three stores. One was Kokon to Zai in London. They – namely, Marjan Pejoski – are very close to Björk. She did the swan dress and this big pink dress that she wore at the Cannes Film Festival. Before going to going to Cannes to show Dancing in the Dark, Björk went to the store and bought each of the pieces I had made. She started wearing it, and then she contacted me to have pieces for her show. It shifted the brand, actually. She’s so inspiring. I like when people are bold like this, you know? She’s not scared of wearing something weird, something that people can even laugh at. People could say, “Oh, that’s so ugly.” She doesn’t care. That’s a side of her that I like.

NEILL: You are a part of a really fascinating group of artist and designers in Paris. Do you inspire or influence each other?

BUKEY: We have a close group of friends. Each of us is in his own world, of course. The one that is closest to me is Vincent Darré in terms of aesthetics.

NEILL: He has a great personality. He always makes me smile.

BUKEY: He’s a very happy person. There is also Michel Gaubert, who does the music for my show. I love talking to him. Sometimes, he’s like, “Oh, I thought of you when I saw this image.” We have a lot of exchange, whether musical or otherwise. I was more into music before. I wanted to be a singer. But it was not possible due to my family. [Laughs.] They wanted me to go and do political science. I went to study it. But after three months I was like, “I don’t understand what they’re talking about. Please let me do something else.” They accepted that I do something else, but it had to be kind of like mathematics. I figured out that industrial design was not so bad. I went into graphics to be able to be close to the music industry. I wanted to do the album covers. Slowly, that shifted to perfume bottle designing. From there, I met this old lady who was the head of this very famous fashion school in Paris. Vincent went to the same school. Camille Bidault went to that school.

NEILL: Did you guys know each other before school?

BUKEY: No, we were all from different eras of the school. This lady has changed all of our lives.

NEILL: What’s her name?

BUKEY: Marie Rucki. When you arrive to that school, she says, “Everything you learned from your parents is shit. We’re going to empty it and refill it with what you like.”

NEILL: So she is responsible?

BUKEY: She is responsible for a lot of designers. The school has been there for forty years, and she’s still there. She’s over 80.

NEILL: I always attribute creativity to what people do on their own. I always forget that a teacher can be a huge influence.

BUKEY: A teacher can change your life. Or they can make you hate something.

NEILL: There’s a rumor that you are a descendant of royalty. Is this true?

BUKEY: My great great grandfather was the king of Egypt in the beginning of the 19th century. It was a family that ruled from the beginning of 1800 until 1953. The last king was King Farouk. The first was Mehmet Ali Pasha, who comes from Italy and Greece. He was the one who offered the Obelisk to Napoleon when they lost the war against him. For me, the most inspiring person from my father’s family is Princess Fawzia, who was the sister of King Farouk. She was the first wife of the Shah of Iran. She stayed there two years. She was a party girl, and she couldn’t stand it, so she left. She’s beautiful, like a Hollywood actress. I’m going to Egypt next week, actually.

NEILL: What are you doing there?

BUKEY: I have some of my father’s family there – aunts and cousins. In 1953, the family lost all of their houses and mansions – everything. Everything belongs to the state. You can still live in it, but you can’t sell anything. You can’t restore it. It’s unfortunately fading away. I haven’t been in 25 years. I’ll have to hide the tattoos. [Laughs.]

NEILL: For your collections, you stage, dramatic, beautiful, and elaborate scenes, instead of the typical runway show. Are runway shows boring to you?

BUKEY: Very boring. Sometimes, I go to support friends who do shows. All the journalists and stylists, they have so much to see right now. They travel so much. I believe you have to give them something else. I love performing. I used to perform myself, a few years ago. Unfortunately, now, I can’t during my shows, because I need to do the interviews. Being able to take care of the music, the image, the photography, the design, the furniture – for me, it’s a global art. That’s what I like.

NEILL: It’s like a painting.

BUKEY: Yeah. And I like working with the same crew. I like adding newcomers in. Now, we have more and more well-known people who want to be part of the show. They call me and say, “Hey, can I be part of the show next season?” If it fits, I’ll let them do it. I have a little list.

NEILL: Can you give an example?

BUKEY: I would love to work with Marie-Agnès Gillot. She’s one of the main dancers in the Opéra Paris. Right now, it’s not the right moment, because the next collections are not fitting her. At some point, I would love to work with her, having her dancing.

NEILL: I agree. The fashion show is…

BUKEY: It’s so quick. A show is only seven to ten minutes. Very sad.

NEILL: Now, they’re doing it where you can watch the show on the computer and buy it right away.

BUKEY: This is the thing that people started doing to avoid copying. I wish that we just did one collection per year, and that we showed it for Spring/Summer. In the end, it’s a lot of work, a lot of research. You put your heart in there, and it’s only living in the store for two months. The value is down right now. That’s why everyone tries to do things very quickly. You don’t have the time to go deeper into your research. What I liked, back in the day, was that you could be interested in an image or artist, look for it in a library, and then find other things that inspire you even more. It takes you from one spot to the other. That’s what we need right now.

NEILL: That’s exactly how I feel about collecting records.

BUKEY: Collecting records, you go to the store, you search and search. You don’t find what you’re looking for, maybe, but you will find something else.

NEILL: You don’t have enough time to research?

BUKEY: Right now, everything is quick. Three seasons ago, I worked a lot on Bob Fosse’s work. In the end, you speak to the journalists, and they don’t even know who he is. You’re like, “Come on. This is not possible.” [Laughs.] Let me do a few moves for you.

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NEILL: Do you have any hand in choreographing the performances?

BUKEY: I work with this boy who used to be my student. (I worked at Studio Berçot after I was student there.) He shifted from being a stylist to dance. He has a group called House of Drama. His name is Aymeric Bergada Du Cadet. We have this very close relationship. More or less, we do everything together. I am around Christopher Niquet a lot as well. He lives in New York. I really believe in his eye. When I finish my collection, I always say, “Hey, can you have a look at it?” He always has the right words.

NEILL: It’s like you have a little family.

BUKEY: Yes. The dancers are all young kids. I like to have those young girls around, to show them the way as well. “Maybe don’t go there… Do more of this.” I help them out with their daily looks, so they are elevated.

NEILL: What do you look for in a performer? I know you just worked with François Sagat.

BUKEY: He used to be a porn actor. Before that, he also did Studio Berçot. He was in my sister’s class. he worked in the fashion industry and then got fed up from it. I see his porn work as an artwork. He’s not afraid to have bubblegum looks. I like that. I understand very well why he went into that. Now, he has stopped after five years. He has a brand now of men’s underwear. It’s called Kick Sagat. When I asked him, “Would you perform?” He said yes. We performed together three times before, in clubs. It was quite a pain in the ass. We were dressed in cat suits, and people would pull our tails.

NEILL: A lot of unexpected issues.

BUKEY: I used to be very stressed with the performers. “Okay, you have to do it perfectly!” Now, I know that they will give it their best. Let them be. “Do how you feel the best.” There’s no competition between them. Everyone has her own character. We work with MAC for the makeup. I always tell him, “It’s not just one makeup for the show. I need one for each girl that shows best their character and personality.” It’s quite free. I like to leave each person who works with me a lot of freedom.

NEILL: Would you say anybody could come? Do you have auditions or casting?

BUKEY: Auditions, no. But, for instance, we have worked many seasons with Anna Cleveland as a model, and this season she said, “I want to dance.” She’s not a dancer, so we did more rehearsal with her. But in the end, she was amazing. The star of the show. Then again, the character has to go with the show. One season we will use someone, but the next season I have to say, “I’m sorry, but you won’t be in.” Then, they come back. It’s like a family, as you said. Also, I need to be sure they didn’t gain weight. [Laughs.]

NEILL: Where do you look for inspiration when it comes to your collections?

BUKEY: For the Hollywood collection, it was the dancing of Bob Fosse, the actresses of classic eras, Samuel Goldwyn. I make all this research, and then I pull out my own story. For the collection, My Heart Belongs to Paris, it was the Pink Panther, Henry Mancini’s music, and American in Paris. My American in Paris was an American girl tourist. She arrives to Paris. That morning, at the Café de Flore, there is a big scandal. The Mona Lisa has been stolen from the Louvre. There are many stories as to what happened – someone stabbed the Mona Lisa, someone what in love with her. I make my own story out of it.

NEILL: It sounds almost like a dream. You have all these things that you filter through.

BUKEY: Yeah. Also, there are images that were inspiring for me when I was a kid. My father was an ambassador who pretty much specialized in the Arab world. We lived in different Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, where there were no movies or anything. My father helped me a lot with my cinematographic side. We would watch and rewatch and then act out a lot of musicals.

NEILL: So that was very inspiring to your collections now?

BUKEY: Yeah, yeah. One of the first things that inspired me so much was Boy George, Culture Club. The only way out was to go to these shopping malls in Saudi Arabia and walk around. I was obsessed by the album covers. When I saw Boy George and the Culture Club I was like, “Yes!” I would dress like a mini Boy George. I put my hair in braids. My parents would freak out, of course, because I ruined all my mom’s makeup.

NEILL: Can you talk a little bit about your current collection, Gardens of Pleasure?

BUKEY: There is a cartoon in France called Asterix. It’s about a little village that fights against the Romans back in the day. There is one that is called Twelve Worlds of Asterix, where they have to do Olympic things. I started listening to the music. It was a cartoon from the 70s. I found out the guy who did the music, and I found this album that he made, Tropical Fantasy. It was amazing. I took a bit of Tropical Fantasy, and then I wanted to do my own Gardens of Eden. What will I have inside that? La chicholina, for me, is the sexual side of beauty. The birth of Venus. Poison ivy. Cupid. Aphrodite and Zeus. It’s totally different, but I do my own story.

NEILL: Do you bring a character to the story?

BUKEY: The show starts with the priestess of the island, doing the welcome dance. Then, we have different personalities who come out for different tableaux. We finish with Adam and Eve, but Adam is eating the apple.

NEILL: Where do you see you and your brand going in the future?

BUKEY: I want to grow it into the thing I call Yazbukeyland. I want to make a lifestyle around the brand. You are able to have furniture, bedsheets, glasses, rugs, oil paintings, perfume, car (the Yazmobile) – everything. You can be in that fantasy world, you know? That’s what I want.

NEILL: Is there anything that you want everybody to know?

BUKEY: Not too long ago, I saw that Boy George bought a piece of mine. I was in his concert last year in Paris, which was amazing, and he kept saying, “My friend Jerry is here!” And I though, oh, Jerry is my friend too. I contacted him and said, “I really want to do something with Boy George.” Lately, I sent him two pieces, and he wrote me back on Twitter saying, “I really loved my gifts.” He was like, “Follow me!” Like, oh my God, from age 11 to age 42, the circle is there. I really hope one day we can do something. Maybe he can sing during my show. It’s possible. He is so open. 

To find retailer's or purchase Yazbukey's collections online, click here. Photographs and interview by Douglas Neill. Intro text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE